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The Ultimate Reloading Manual
Wolfe Publishing Group
  • alliant reloading data
  • reloading brass
  • shotshell reloading
The Ultimate Reloading Manual
hodgdon load data

.38 Special (using Sierra bullets)

Author: Brian Pearce / Wolfe Publishing Co.
Date: Aug 04 2020

The .38 Special first appeared in 1899 (some sources indicate 1902) and was designed specifically for the Smith & Wesson Military & Police Hand Ejector revolver based on the K frame (aka 1st Model of 1899 Army-Navy revolver). The case was based on a lengthened .38 long Colt and charged with 21.5 grains of black powder to push a 158-grain lead bullet to around 860 fps. During this era, nitro-based powders were evolving rapidly, and soon smokeless powder loads appeared.

Though primarily a revolver cartridge, the .38 Special has been chambered in a variety of guns to include target revolvers, derringers, single-shot pistols and even specialized auto-loading pistols (for match target competition with wad-cutter bullets) and rifles. The cartridge was standard issues in many police departments for decades. Today it remains popular and is finding favor when chambered in small, compact revolvers for concealed carry and personal defense applications. It is probably the most popular centerfire revolver cartridge the world over.

Industry guidelines for standard pressure .38 Special ammunition is currently 17,000 psi, while +P load pressure (beginning in 1974) is established at 20,000 psi. The accompanying data using Sierra bullets contains a mix of standard pressure and +P loads. If using +P loads, be certain your gun is accordingly rated by its manufacturer.

Some powders are more difficult to ignite properly and were used here in conjunction with CCI 550 Small Pistol Magnum primers. Be certain to use loads exactly as listed to prevent poor ignition. Do not reduce “starting” loads, or pressure can become so low that bullets can possibly stick in the bore, a potentially dangerous situation for the shooter and bystanders and can damage the gun.

Bullets should be crimped using either a roll crimp or taper crimp to prevent their jumping crimp when fired. A good crimp also serves the important role of assisting with proper powder ignition.